When you first set foot in Catania—a newcomer on the edge of Brooklyn Heights named after Sicily’s second largest city—you might assume it’s a restaurant. Seating on either side of the door provides views of the borough’s first Arab neighborhood, as if you were standing on the island of Sicily looking across the strait toward Tunisia. Just inside, a counter faced with gleaming white tiles extends deep into the room; tables run parallel along a wall of exposed brick. The lighting is artistic—though way too bright for romance. Much of the food, including oil-slicked vegetables, exotic pizza-dough creations, lushly sauced pastas, and diminutive main courses, is displayed in glass cases.
Yet, there’s no service to speak of. You order at the counter, and, if you’re lucky, the guy will bring your food by and by. What’s more, it’s nearly impossible to sequence or pace a meal here. Sometimes a square slice of the cheese-drenched pizza arrives first, sometimes a main course of half a Cornish hen. In the worst case, everything materializes at once, which is too much for the postage-stamp tables to hold. Not quite a restaurant, the establishment is the kind of all-day snack shop Italians refer to as a “bar café,” according to one of the owners: “In Catania, where I come from, there are over 50 places like this. People never go to a restaurant until late in the evening, but during the day, they eat their meals in bar cafés.”
He went on to explain why the fare at Catania is distinct from that of Brooklyn’s ancient Sicilian focaccerias, like Joe’s of Avenue U and Ferdinando’s: “They come from Palermo, which has its own food style. We don’t make panelle, for example,” referring to the square chickpea fritters. But, as in our focaccerias, Catania tenders a range of typical Sicilian snacks, bolstering them with anchovies, capers, raisins, olives, pine nuts, and bread crumbs. Many are deliriously good.
You might begin with caponata ($3.75): a slippery, sweet-sour heap of eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. At Catania, potatoes are added to amp up the stick-to-your-ribs quality. In the same vein, the hilariously named bastardi affogati braises cauliflower with olives and capers. “Bastardi” refers to the nickname of a purple cauliflower native to Sicily, while “affogati” means “drowned,” warning of the soupy texture the dish attains. If you like vegetables firm, this isn’t for you.
Another choice is called simply parmigiana ($4.25). This progenitor of the stalwart Italian-American eggplant casserole turns out to be more delicate than its offspring, the unbreaded vegetable thinly sliced, interleaved with ham, and sprinkled with Parmesan. Eggplant is something you’ll see again and again at Catania—it also fills farcita: a flat, hollowed-out roll surmounted by a brittle pastry cap, the perfect short meal to take with you on a bike ride.
The snack bar makes sandwiches on homemade rolls and also concocts elaborate, meal-size salads—neither worth ordering till you’re tired of everything else on the menu. The place’s warm offerings, referred to as tavola calda (“hot table”), include the aforementioned Sicilian slice, as good as any in the borough. But why not go kinky and get the fattoressa (“farmhand,” $3.75), topped with fresh peas, impossibly pungent Gaeta olives, and shredded leeks—relatively unusual in Italian cooking, a taste perhaps inherited from the Bourbon French who occupied Sicily intermittently during the 18th and 19th centuries. Need more proof of French influence? Just look in the dessert case, where Napoleons and baba au rhums rule the roost.
Other tavola calda selections include calzones (known as cartocciata in the Catanian dialect) and the rice balls beloved of Sicilians. These come in several shapes, each dotted with one or two companion ingredients: mushrooms, spinach, or ground beef and peas. If you’re feeling particularly peckish, consider a pasta. Most typically Sicilian are penne arrabiata (meaning “angry,” not “Arab,” $8.25), tomato-sauced and assertively spiced with red chili flakes; and rigatoni Norma, named after an opera by the beloved Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini. The pasta mountain shows up with a sprightly tomato sauce and heavy mantle of snowy ricotta salata. Bring your skis!
With the exception of a brilliant sardine ($9.25) twice-cooked with raisins, olives, bread crumbs, and pine nuts, the smallish main courses are entirely forgettable. This is a snack shop, after all. Following a predilection on the part of Sicilians for not drinking until dinner—or so the owner claims—Catania doesn’t offer alcohol, even though it’s open till 10 every night. A BYOB policy allows you to bring your own, however. Regard this not as a defect, but as an opportunity.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com.Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.